Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
Ellen Spertus, who holds three MIT degrees and is an assistant professor of computer science at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., was recently named the "Sexiest Geek Alive" in an annual Silicon Valley pageant.
The first woman to capture the title in the contest's brief history, she was attired in a PVC corset with a printed-circuit board pattern and a black slit skirt, which allowed her to holster a slide rule to her leg. She didn't make the outfit herself. "I can make a printed circuit board but don't know how to sew," she explained on her web site.
The slide rule was actually handed down to her by her father Philip Spertus, also an MIT grad (S.B. 1956 in management). "I can do some operations, but I still haven't figured out how to program it," she said.
At the pageant in San Jose, Calif., which was sponsored by trade show organizer Imark Communications, contestants were asked several questions and then participated in a talent round. Spertus showed a five-minute video and demonstrated how to count in binary on one's fingers. She beat out a baton-twirling e-business integration manager, a lip-syncing web designer and a contestant who did a dramatic interpretation of a scene from the movie "Return of the Jedi."
Spertus noted on her web site that she is "MIT cubed" with her three degrees: an S.B. in 1990, an S.M. in 1992 and a Ph.D. in 1998, all in electrical engineering and computer science.
In her web page's frequently-asked-questions section, she defines geeks as "intelligent, enthusiastic people full of curiosity and passion," though she admits "I'm more comfortable with the term 'nerd'," noting MIT's unofficial "nerd pride" movement. The site also has links to dozens of news articles about her pageant victory.
How does it feel to be the Sexiest Geek Alive? "It feels great! I wish I could upload the experience so every geek could enjoy it," she said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 18, 2001.